Spanish vs. Mandarin Dual Language programs?

Hypatia Cade asks:

I’m curious about your thoughts (or your readers’ thoughts) – we will have the option to lottery in to 2 dual lang programs: Spanish or Mandarin. There are other pieces of these choices (school location, true public vs. charter, curriculum differences) that make it complex….But if the language of instruction were the only variable would you pick one language over the other? Why? (And to what extent would parental familiarity with a language enter into this?)

I would probably pick Mandarin over Spanish all else equal because it’s easier to pick up Spanish at older ages as an English speaker.  (My assumption would be Mandarin as a child and then Spanish as a third language in middle school and/or high school.)  Both Mandarin and Spanish are useful languages to know — I wouldn’t, for example, choose Dutch over Spanish even though Dutch has similar pronunciation problems to Mandarin for English-speakers, because Dutch isn’t that useful (in my experience, most Dutch speakers you come in contact with know English extremely well and will prefer to use it).  Note here, that I would expect Spanish learning in either scenario– that’s non-negotiable just like swimming lessons, it’s just a matter or whether or not there’s also fluency in Mandarin.

I am pretty fluent in Spanish, but sadly have Kindergarten-level Cantonese rather than Mandarin (of which I only remember how to count up to 999 and how to write the first few numbers and the word for “big” which is the same in Mandarin as it is in Cantonese).  (I also have first grade-level French and a smattering of Latin.  And I’ve picked up a bit of school-girl Japanese from Anime, which is pretty useless unless I need to tell someone to wait or that I like like them.  DH has high school-level German.)  I think I would just trust my kids to pick up the Mandarin in school and would get a tutor if there were learning difficulties along the way.  The dual-language material we have is very adamant that we don’t have to do anything special to get DC2 prepared for dual-language K and that it’s ok if the parents don’t speak Spanish.

Here are some replies from our regular readers:


given Mandarin or Spanish, I’d let my kiddo pick, which would probably result in Spanish. Dad took Spanish, Mom took Mandarin, so that’s not a huge factor. But my kiddo is SO into soccer, and Spanish means ze can translate when we go on dream Argentina trip ;-)

If I were factoring in efficacy of language training (i.e. how proficient they are likely to end up), I’d lean toward Spanish. Though for that I’d consider possible peers who might help hir practice too. Pronunciation on Mandarin is probably easiest to learn very young, but this wasn’t the trickiest part to me. The thing I think was really hard about Mandarin was the writing. Are they doing simplified characters, or traditional, and when do they bring in typing? It’s very challenging, and I wouldn’t suggest it for most kids until about age 11 or so.


One consideration might be which language is easiest to reinforce from home or environment. I have 5 year old grand child who has been Mandarin immersion from 2 pre-school years and just finishing K. Reads and writes and speaks in both English and Mandarin. Both parents speak Mandarin, my co-grandparents speak primarily Mandarin, so lots of reinforcement happened naturally from birth. Had a Spanish speaking nanny before preschool and both parent’s Spanish increased in fluency through those years. But for last two years, post nanny, it has been harder to reinforce and keep in use. Being able to reinforce and use the language outside of school makes a huge difference.


My daughter has dysgraphia so found the Mandarin characters problematic. (She was exposed to both the characters and… pinyan?) In theory learning Mandarin sounds great, but living in the US Spanish may be more useful and enjoyable. My daughter ended up learning French and still keeps it up on her own as a young adult.


We had a choice between Mandarin and Spanish for language immersion programs, and chose Spanish based primarily on the fact that the school that does Spanish is in our neighborhood. We had low probability of getting into either, but got very lucky (a literal lottery win!) and got into the Spanish school in our neighborhood and have loved it. Also, it starts at 9 (with before care provided by the YMCA for a fee) and the Mandarin school starts at 7:45, which even for our early rising kids would have been a struggle and a PITA for the entire family.

We pay for very low key private Mandarin lessons, mostly because my oldest kid really excels at language so we want to let her push on that. But it also means that both kids will have learned the tones at an age when they can really learn them and that should make it easier for them to become fluent in Mandarin later if they want to. Bonus: the Mandarin teacher picks the kids up from the after care program one day per week, giving us extra schedule flexibility on that day. Win-win.

FWIW, we have noticed no real problems with learning two languages at once. I don’t know if that would be true if we were really pushing on the Mandarin, but with our immersion Spanish and low key Mandarin, it seems fine. We have noticed that our younger kid, who was not reading fluently in English before starting the Spanish program, tends to spell English words with Spanish phonics, which is hilariously cute. (Eg, miles is spelled “mayols”) We assume that will sort itself out by about grade 3, when her school starts working on English spelling. She is now reading fluently in English, which should help.

What would you choose, Grumpy Nation?


27 Responses to “Spanish vs. Mandarin Dual Language programs?”

  1. monsterzero Says:

    I would choose Spanish just because we live in California and there are going to be more opportunities to use it here.

    I had a classmate in German 1 who had moved here from Germany when she was five and had completely lost her German through non-use. She had excellent pronunciation, but she wasn’t any better than average at picking up vocab and grammar.

  2. Leah Says:

    I’d pick whichever school is most convenient for your family (timing, location, etc). If all those are equal, I’d personally go for Spanish, since I find I use my Spanish skills a lot. I’d like my kids to speak Spanish. But I also agree that Mandarin tonation is hard to learn and would be best picked up at a young age. I have a lot of students who speak Mandarin, and I really struggle with the tones when they try to teach me words.

    Side note: I find it amusing that Mandarin and Dutch are compared here. I did learn Dutch when I studied abroad and found it just as easy to learn as Spanish (maybe more so), as it is fairly similar to English. Dutch is perhaps mildly tonal (some words are challenging to pronounce) but not bad. In the US, any Dutch speakers you encounter will be fluent in English. In the Netherlands, most Dutch know a lot of English, but people in lower level jobs with less education might not. Most kids today are taught English in school, but adults don’t all know/remember it. My Dutch teacher did always say “Dutch is easy — this isn’t Ke-Swahili.” So that’s my standard for a hard language.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Military linguists have a list of how difficult different languages are to learn for English speakers, or at least they did 20 years ago when I was taking linguistics in college. Dutch is somewhat more difficult than Spanish but much easier than Chinese. The point wasn’t that Dutch was as hard to learn as Chinese but that it has vowel sounds we don’t make in English.

      • Leah Says:

        ah, yes, fair enough! I did have to practice a number of letter sounds. The G is also an initial challenge.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yeah, I got to visit The Netherlands and was shocked at how amazingly poorly I had always pronounced Van Gogh’s name. :-)

  3. Amy Says:

    I would let your child pick, or go with whichever school is better logistically. My family wanted me to pick Spanish because it would be more useful, but now I live in Canada, so it would have been better to take French with my friends. You never know what direction your children will take in life, so you may as well let them pick something they have an interest in.

    From experience here in Montreal, immersion without any additional reinforcement does not really result in good language acquisition unless your child is committed to learn. Even in an immersion school, most of their peers will also speak English, so they can avoid the second language in social interactions if they want to. Immersion means they will probably understand the language, but you can’t force someone to learn to speak a language.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My four year old is very bright, but I’m not entirely sure that zie has the context necessary to make an informed decision between Spanish and Mandarin. (It sounds like Becca’s kid above does have that context though.)

      • Hypatia Cade Says:

        I agree – I’m not sure I’d let me kid pick at this age…

      • Amy Says:

        One of mine at 4 would have been able to make a choice the other one wouldn’t have–you know your child best! If you would like to reinforce Spanish at home, I would pick Spanish. If you will do nothing extra at home, I would pick the school with better logistics for the family.

        My kids are bilingual English/French. They learned another European language when I was on sabbatical (we sent them to the local public school). DC1 loved it, and is trying to maintain the third language. DC2 did not love it, and pretended they did not speak the local language for a long time. DC2 only learned the local language to talk to the other kids at school, since no one there spoke English or French. Their teacher overheard them interacting with peers at school more or less fluently, so we found out the real situation. Knowing DC2, I was not surprised that DC2 was resistant to learning the local language or displaying knowledge of it. At an immersion/dual language school, DC2 would not learn to speak the second language without additional reinforcement at home. Something to keep in mind based on what you know of your child.

        I can tell you that since your DC is literate in English, that will likely immediately translate to Spanish as soon as your child has enough vocabulary to make sense of simple books in Spanish. Literacy for my kids came together in both of their languages, since it seems to be a matter of training the brain to decode. Mandarin is another kettle of fish for that. Amazon has a fair number of free e-books in various languages, which is something we are using to help DC1 keep the third language without breaking the bank.

  4. jjiraffe Says:

    I think it’s hard to predict which language will be more useful to a child in the future. Sometimes passion for a language and culture trumps all, if your child loves a language or culture early. Not as young as kindergarten, but I took French starting in 2nd grade because I was a budding Francophile, and while it’s not useful in daily life, I love going to French speaking counties (and have gone often). I even moved abroad, where I used French pretty often.

    I do wonder if Mandarin (or any language with a different alphabet) might create more gritty and rigorous learning in some ways if your child isn’t leaning towards one language. My children are in a bilingual Hebrew/English school. I’ve noticed that learning a language with another alphabet, that in general is pretty different from English, seems to flex different muscles in kids’ brains. I’ve noticed it makes my kids have to work really hard in some ways when they study Hebrew, and has made them more persistent when other schoolwork gets difficult in some ways. Some research seems to backs up the using different parts of your brain:

  5. Hypatia Cade Says:

    Add to the mix of all this… The Mandarin school choice is truly public (with concommitant accommodations for special ed) /limited in terms of demographic diversity/likely our neighborhood school and in walking distance of work. The Spanish school choice is public charter (unclear special ed) /has more low income & non-white students/would require driving but is across the street from the daycare we will use.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      For how many years is the daycare overlapping with school and is dropoff/pick-up synchronize without you having to cut the daycare day shorter than you would have otherwise? (Do they have an after school program so you could pick up both kids at about the same time?)

      There’s a lot to be said for being in walking distance of work, especially if you have flexibility in being able to bring a child temporarily or leave work during the day. Public schools have a lot of random holidays and half-days that daycares don’t have.

      • Hypatia Cade Says:

        At least 3 years of overlap… Possibly more (5) if we have a third. Unclear thus far re: after school programs… And I’d love to be able to walk, drop my kid off and keep walking… and end up at work!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That sounds lovely. Sadly our zoned elementary school is not our closest school. Happily there’s a full service bus system. Sadly it doesn’t pick up kids from after school care. :/

    • Cloud Says:

      If you want to compare on convenience and school culture, ask some questions about things like back to school night- is child care available? (At our school- a title 1 school- it is, at my friends’ public schools in wealthier areas, it isn’t.) When are things like award assemblies scheduled (our school: usually beginning of the day or end of the day, my friends’ public schools: 10 a.m.). Are there “recommended” donations to the PTA? (Our school: no. My friends’ school: yes, and it is $700/kid.)

      I would never have thought to ask about these things going in, but as luck would have it, our school is more friendly to working families than the schools that many of my friends’ kids go to.

  6. bogart Says:

    As some others have said they would, I’d likely choose based on convenience, but I don’t have any particular expertise in this issue. Indeed, our (public) school system offers both these options and we have chosen to … let our kid go to the school nearest our home because that is easiest, so apparently I’m not kidding (about placing a high value on convenience, though there are other aspects I appreciate, most of our neighbors’ kids, including a number in his grade, go to the same school, and being easily able to walk to school).

    I did briefly work with a delightful woman whose 3 boys, spaced 2 years apart each, were in the Mandarin immersion school and I asked her whether she or her husband spoke Mandarin (or any Chinese). And — no. So, I cheerfully asked, “You’re going to be bringing up 3 teenagers who can speak to one another in a language you don’t understand?!” She admitted they hadn’t considered that. The boys must by now be teenagers, I wonder how it’s working %)!

  7. Debbie M Says:

    Another strategy is to choose whichever program is in the best school. I (finally) learned in college that the best courses were not necessarily the ones I was most interested in, but the ones with the best teachers–who can make anything fascinating. Well, who are good at revealing and emphasizing the fascinating parts of the subject matter.

  8. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    Briefly wondering if I just utterly failed to submit the comment I’d written the other day or if it went into moderation.

  9. NZ Muse Says:

    Well, I’m in NZ (so proximity to Asia is key) so I’d go with Mandarin hands down.

  10. Ask the grumpies: Gifted vs. Local school for a new Kindergartener? | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] vs. gifted (this one has some links at the bottom to related questions).  (Here’s one on what dual language program to […]

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